Compassionate Justice: An Interdisciplinary Dialogue with Two Gospel Parables on Law, Crime, and Restorative Justice – Book Review

Author:  Christopher D. Marshall
Publisher:  Wipf and Stock
ISBN 13:  9781610978071

Book Review by Rev Ruth Adams

An internet search for the term “restorative justice” comes up with well over two million results. A reader searching for descriptions of its theory and practice has many books to choose from. As one might expect therefore, there is no clear consensus within the field about how “restorative justice” can be defined. For Christopher Marshall, restorative justice places “the healing of hurts, the renewal of relationships and the re-creation of community at the centre of its agenda” (p321). It is, above all, about repairing the harm caused by wrong-doing, harm that is felt both by the offender and the victim. Where possible “by actively involving the affected parties in mutual dialogue and decision-making about their needs and obligations”. Marshall argues that restorative justice provides a very different paradigm from the standard way of thinking about crime and its impact and deserves to have a distinctive place within the criminal justice system (p5). Furthermore, Marshall argues that restorative justice enables compassion to have a much larger role in social and legal systems.

This book is the latest of several that Marshall has written on this subject and he is regarded by peers as a key Christian contributor to restorative justice theory. However, the reader would not need to have read any of his previous works to find this book both useful and thought provoking: useful, as he provides a helpful summary of both the principles and practice of restorative justice, and thought provoking because of his particular theological reflections.

Here is a wonderful work of exegesis on two Lukan parables of Jesus. Through his detailed analysis of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10) and the Prodigal Son (Luke 15), Marshall makes it hard to refute the notion that issues of justice and community restoration were at the heart of Jesus‟ understanding of the gospel. The parables were not just stories told to affect personal spirituality, but also to impact social behaviour. Parts one and two of the book provide fascinating insights about the parables and a broader reading of the themes in Luke‟s gospel. Marshall effectively uses the disciplines of social psychology, moral philosophy and legal theory alongside theology in his reading and imagining of the texts. The parable of the Good Samaritan is read as an examination into the treatment of victims and the Prodigal Son as an example of how offending behaviour must be dealt with.

Marshall argues that the purpose of the Good Samaritan parable was to illustrate the true meaning of the love commandments in the Torah, addressing the lawyer‟s question of who our neighbour is (and hence what true love is). “The figure of the enemy-loving, wound- binding, care-giving, compassionate Samaritan” (p322) highlights the primacy of love for Christian practice. He points out that the Samaritan chose to meet the needs of the victim without first working out if he was required to by religious obligation. The victim‟s need made him a neighbour who deserved compassion. This response is contrasted with those of the others who pass by without helping. Marshall argues convincingly that they may have had perfectly justifiable religious reasons for their choices. He provides a careful description of the religious world of the first century and the importance of defining who one‟s neighbour was as a way of honouring one‟s relationship with God. For Marshall this was a revolutionary parable. Alongside Jesus‟ lived example, it showed that the true follower of Torah did not operate by dividing people into categories: those we need to help and those we can ignore. A religious person must not ask the question “who is my neighbour” but rather “to whom am I a neighbour?” (p129). We cannot pick those we wish to help. The Kingdom of God is built through concrete acts of love, with the believer required to be a neighbour to everyone. And this commitment requires all of who we are. The Samaritan “is engaged emotionally, physically, materially, socially, financially, and morally in reaching out to the dying man on the roadside” (p128). Thus the victim requires all of our support in order that the harm done to them may be repaired. A justice system must therefore provide means by which the victim can be repaired.

While we may get on board with the primacy of love in all our dealings with neighbours, with the need for society to help the victims of crime, helping to repair harm caused even if it takes us well out of our own comfort zone, Marshall provides an even bigger challenge with his interpretation of the parable of the Prodigal Son. In this interpretation he considers the impact of offending, our treatment of the offenders, and our obligation to show compassion in our responses.

The murder of the 12 year old girl, Tia Sharp, in August 2012, has recently dominated the British media due to the arrest in May 2013 of her self-confessed killer, Stuart Hazell. Part of this coverage focussed on the response of Tia‟s mother to the murderer and her desire to see him in jail, in order to ask him why he had done it. It is notable that her motivation for this has been reported as one of revenge. Press coverage of this verged on the salacious, with headlines such as “Hang him” with Tia‟s step-father saying on breakfast TV that he hopes her murderer “rots in jail”. It is seen as publically acceptable for the family to express such sentiments, and also seen as obvious that any decent person would want such offenders to be put away for life. Perpetrators of these horrible crimes are seen somehow as “other” in society. We demonise them and make them less and less like “us”. They must be monsters, the narrative goes, to commit such appalling acts. Compassion for the offender is absent from these narratives. Nevertheless, Marshall insists that the parable of the Prodigal Son can help us change our perspective towards offenders, even like Hazell. We may even start to feel an obligation to look at offenders with compassion.

At first sight it might not seem that the father in the story of the prodigal son parable was as wronged as the parent of a murdered child, but rather was simply a father dealing with a son who had „gone off the rails‟. However, Marshall demonstrates the depth of the appalling wrong done to the father in the story, but then holds him up as “the figure of the patient, forgiving, banquet-throwing, compassionate father of the prodigal son” (p322) as an example of someone demonstrating extraordinary compassion. For Marshall, offenders and victims are on parallel journeys of dealing with the crushing impact of shame – “for one, the shame of doing harm, for the other the shame of being harmed…[and] each party, paradoxically, holds the key to the other‟s healing” (p231). By exercising his extraordinary compassion, the father in the story enables both parties to move forward from this shame. Marshall is very concerned to point out that the encounter is very costly both for the victim and the perpetrator in the story. Such costliness, however, is worth it, Marshall believes, as it promotes the cause of justice, the purpose of which is human flourishing for all people (p221).

One might question how much the rage of victims who have been terribly hurt will, in the end, help with their own flourishing, or whether it serves instead to trap them in a cycle of retributive rage. Further, it is hard to see how the demonization of offenders will help them understand the impact that their crime has had, make amends to their victims and resolve to lead a different life henceforward. Something that offers a different way forward, which offers more life to both victim and offender, should surely be welcomed.

As well as helping Christian readers to reflect on these issues through the lens of well-loved parables, Marshall also uses this book to deal with some objections to restorative justice that have been voiced. He has a very helpful section devoted to a response to the work of Annalise Acorn, and in particular to her objections to restorative justice being allegedly soft on criminals and helping them avoid punishment.

An article in the New York Times at the beginning of 2013 discussed the experience of two families who had committed to a restorative justice process that ran alongside the regular legal process. It provides a fascinating account of the struggles and benefits of such a process and underlines many of the points that Marshall makes in this book. This was an emotive case of murder, where the Grosmaires‟ daughter was murdered by the McBrides‟ son. Yet the headlines in this case are not about revenge, but rather about forgiveness. The process proved costly for both victim and offender in this case, but it appears to have helped them to see a future beyond the particular crime. This case legitimizes Marshall‟s claim that restorative justice can provide a helpful addition to the legal process and demonstrates that there is nothing “soft” about restorative justice practice.

For our British culture, where religious contributions can often be relegated to the private sphere, Marshall provides the Christian with a helpful way of engaging with public issues of justice. In a culture saturated with film, TV, and video games, coming to issues of ethics with these two stories rather than abstract principles of morality could be very helpful. This is empowering to those of us who are unsure how we should speak on important social issues without hectoring or appearing dogmatic.

The public place for Christian practice is even clearer when Marshall opens his section on the Good Samaritan by quoting from Martin Luther King. King used his interpretation of the parable to give a loud moral voice to the protest movement against segregation and for civil rights. For him the parable was not just a good story to help private Christian conduct, but had very public implications for the state and the laws of the country. For Marshall, Jesus‟ parables were both a realistic description of the kind of violence and mess that humanity can live in and an extraordinary vision of the Kingdom of God. It seems unreal: the wonderful response that is possible to such violence and mess, through compassion. This is a response that we may think we can only dream of, but he argues that it reflects what he calls the “eschatalogical plus dimension” (p251) of the Gospel. That is the dimension that we seek to live in as followers of Jesus, and the Kingdom of God that we preach and seek to live out.

This is a long book that deserves to be read in detail and has much to offer the Christian, who, like Martin Luther King wishes to be actively committed to living a gospel-led life, who admires the stories of the Prodigal and the Samaritan who had a “love ethic by which he journeyed life‟s highway”. Marshall has done the Christian community a great service in publishing this book. In addition he has underlined restorative justice theory with a clear biblical theology, emphasising that ethic of compassion, as best expressed in the life and death of Jesus, should have an impact on all areas of our life and society.

Biographical Details

Ruth Adams grew up in Belfast, Northern Ireland during the Troubles (from the late 1960s to the Good Friday Agreement, 10th April, 1998). She has been interested in both conflict transformation work and community development from a young age and has been very influenced by the work of the Corrymeela Community. Ruth was working as a curate in Omagh, Northern Ireland, at the time of the 1998 bombing and was both honoured and inspired to be a part of a united community response to the violence. Then, after working as a chaplain in Trinity College, Cambridge, England, Ruth moved to be the minister at ecumenical church representing five denominations north of the city of Cambridge. During 2012, Ruth took a year out to study for an MA in Peace and Reconciliation studies at Coventry University. Consequently, Ruth now divides her time between working as an Anglican vicar in north Cambridge and working in the field of church conflict transformation.

Please Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Redcliffe College.

Return to Issue 45.

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